Saturday, September 22, 2007

Culture And Alcohol Poisoning

This morning BBC reported on the tragedy in Karachi where 22 people died due to alcohol poisoning. It gave me the impetus to talk about something I've been meaning to tackle for a while: the completely warped view that many people - usually right-of-center people - have on what culture is.

I'm not going to get too heavily drawn into the definitions of culture. Entire academic papers, and even books, have been written on what "culture" means and suffice it to say, I am not inclined to do the same here. Let's just use something simple and basic like: a population's preferences with regard to what to say, what to eat, how to interact with others, what to wear, where to live and so on and so forth. My point is not to dispute "standard" definitions of culture but to argue about the contours of the dynamic between culture and individuals in a population.

My contention is social conservatives are wrong when they think the relationship goes just one way: from above to below. In other words, they completely ignore the prospect of agents shaping structure and think only that structure affects agents. This is problematic because while it may reflect social conservatives' normative beliefs, it is not an accurate portrayal of reality. Social conservatives want structure to affect all agents equally and want the structure to remain unchanged. Unfortunately for them, this is not how the world works, no matter how much they want it to. In actual fact, a society's culture is simply the sum of each individual's culture, similar to what we learn in 10th grade Economics - that a market's demand curve is simply the sum of each individual's demand curve. A society's culture is affected by the preferences of each individual in a society. Culture is ever-changing and never constant: if people's preferences change - we longer want to dress a certain way, or eat a certain food, or use a certain word - then that society's culture has changed.

What does the wrong headed view of social conservatives mean in concrete terms? It means that social conservatives believe there is one culture in a population and that all members of that population (a) must adhere to the norms of that culture and (b) cannot impact that culture in any way. Remember, for them, culture impacts from above and cannot be changed from below - i.e. the population. This leads them to some fairly nonsensical ideas on what is "good" and what is "bad" for society.

Let's think of a real-world example. Every week, or perhaps every month, I read a letter to a Pakistani newspaper decrying the prevalence of Bollywood films and/or satellite television in Pakistan. These trends go against the grain of our culture, we are told. They must be banned before all hell breaks loose. Note how the letter-writer has decided what our culture is, and that all must adhere to that standard. What this view misses is that people's preferences are a reflection of, indeed are constitutive of, their culture. Bollywood films aren't destroying our culture. They are our culture, at least if enough people are watching them. Recall the Microeconomic analogy - if enough people in a market demand cheese, then we can say that that society demands cheese. If our people are watching Bollywood films, then we can say that our culture includes watching Bollywood films, no matter what the Qazi Hussain Ahmeds have to say about it.

What the hell does this have to do with the tragic death of 22 people due to alcohol poisoning, you ask? Everything. Alcohol, for social conservatives, is not part of our culture. (How, I wonder, can it not be part of our culture if Pakistanis fucking drink? If drinking wasn't Pakistani culture, why would we see Pakistanis fucking drinking? It may not be widespread, it may not be popular, but it sure as hell is part of our culture).

Anyway, as I said earlier, alcohol is not part of our culture, according to the social conservative view. Since it is not part of our culture, it must be banned. Since it is banned, and people still want to drink (gasp!), they find increasingly innovative - and dangerous - ways to satisfy their desire. So they find some shady-ass brewery operated by people who don't exactly have degrees in safety inspection, drink the product of said shady-ass brewery, and die. These people would be alive if alcohol was not banned in Pakistan. There can be no doubt about this. When things are pushed underground thanks to bullshit legislation, they inherently become more dangerous because there is no one to monitor them (think about how much more dangerous it is to gamble on sports in Dubai, Karachi and Bombay than in London and Las Vegas). Said bullshit legislation sprouts directly from a misplaced notion of individuals' relationship to culture. If we didn't have people tell us what our culture is, and as a corollary, how we are to maintain this culture, we wouldn't have stupid laws that lead to avoidable deaths.

End of rant.


Ali Kabir said...

Check out the post on Metroblogging Karachi about the same incident and read the comments. Th enumebr of intolerant people expressing their views here is actually a little scary.


Raza said...

These people would be alive if alcohol was not banned in Pakistan

now this is funny. i never knew that Alcohol was "Aab-e-Hayat" for drinkers.

Stupidity at its best :-)

Adeel said...

Agree with your point, prohibition in the US had arguably worse effects than what Pakistan is seeing.

Would like to add though that legalizing alc in Pak would bring it's own host of death related problems from an increase in fatal driving accidents to an increase in violent crime. While the culture argument used by social conservatives is bull there are other valid reasons to declare a cost/benefit analysis in favor of banning.

unknown said...

I do agree with you to an extent, but you should also keep in mind that though people don't get killed in America because of poisonous Alcohol but they do get killed by fatal driving accidents and the number is way above. As far as culture goes, it's a different story, though very sad where it is going right now.

Anonymous said...

what totally incoherent rant

clearly, and this is the point, saying that drinking is a part of pakistani culture is NOT the same as saying drinking is a part of british/american culture

when someone says that drinking isnt a part of pakistani culture they dont actually mean pakistanis dont drink (vast majority do not)

its more a relative statement and in that sense, completely correct.

Anonymous said...

Ofcourse the vast majority of Pakistani's don't drink. The 22 people that died thought it was coke. Restaraunts in Pakistan serve, people have bars are home and Pakistanis drink at the first opportunity when they can find a bar. I think it would be fair to say that Pakistani culture is to HIDE and drink, but drink nonetheless.

Febin said...

It is very sad to know about the death of 22 people. In the world so many are dying through the over use of the alcohol. This people should understand that alcohol is not the solution for the all problems.
Alcohol Rehab

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